Helping Students with Asperger’s Make Sense of Recess

By Dot Lucci, MEd, CAGS

When “typical” children are asked: “What’s your favorite class at school?” many will say “Recess!” Most children love recess. They are in charge. Freed from arbitrary adult rules, they get to play and run around, burn off energy etc.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), however, may have another perspective. For them, recess is fraught with many difficult issues. Compared to academic periods, recess is unstructured, language-laden, sensorially overwhelming, chaotic, child-centered, open-ended, and often features competitive sports and games. The stress caused by the combined social, sensory, and language demands of recess often lead children with AS to withdraw or exhibit difficult behaviors. The very freedom that other children welcome, children with AS experience as an anxiety-provoking lack of rules, order and structure. They don’t know what to do, and they feel unsafe.

It is up to the rest of us—both adults and peers—to make recess a more organized and pleasurable experience for children with AS. In order to achieve this, we first need a more comprehensive understanding of recess and its many facets. Then we can use our understanding as the basis of explicit and implicit instruction in relationship-building, social skills, play skills, and communication skills for the child with AS. We will also need to study and perhaps address issues in the general school culture.

Before setting goals or implementing a recess plan for a student with AS, it is important to assess where recess fits into the bigger picture of the student’s overall needs. Some children with AS use recess as “down time:” a time to decompress, regroup, and get ready to face the remaining portion of their day. These children usually choose to be alone, not interacting with their peers or adults. They may or may not choose to “do anything” at recess. They may walk around the perimeter of the playground, swing on the swings, or engage in other solitary activities. This activity or lack of activity may be “just what the doctor ordered.”

Only after careful observation and analysis can a teacher know if this is a “useful” way for a child to spend his or her recess time. Remember, recess is about children having fun, choosing what to do, “burning off energy” and the like. It is the same for our children with AS; they may just choose to do it in ways that are different than their peers. Allow them this choice. If we ignore the child’s legitimate needs and choices, all of our attempts at soliciting interaction or play will meet with resistance. For children whose most pressing need is for a break from the social world at recess time, our job is to help them to blend in, rather than standing out by engaging in behaviors that may set them apart too markedly from their peers. Maybe their needs will change in the future, but for now we can just need to offer them appropriate, discreet ways to spend time alone while they recharge their batteries.

Now let’s turn our attention to the children with AS who do want to play and have fun with the other kids at recess—but don’t know how. Many times children with AS want to play at recess and “be one of the guys,” but they lack the necessary skills and knowledge. They try to get involved, but their efforts are often misdirected and they may end up “shooting themselves in the foot.” For example:

They may indicate they want to play Wall Ball & Four Square by calling out the rules or walking into the game when others are playing.

  • During a soccer game they may take the ball and run away with it!
  • They may wander near the playground equipment but do not get on it.
  • They may “hang out” near a group of kids and “bother them.”

Their efforts and failures to connect make recess a “pressure cooker” situation that causes these children much anxiety and turmoil. The good news is that we adults can help students with AS decipher the hidden structure of recess, and teach them the unwritten rules social rules and skills they need to participate successfully. We can also enlist the help of their peers.

There are many concrete strategies which can assist children with AS at recess; however the most important ingredient is being socially connected. Having a social relationship with a peer or peers is essential. (For one approach to promoting social relationships between an AS student and his or her classmates, please see the “Buddy of the Week” article in this newsletter.) It is these relationships that help set the stage for further growth and improved interaction. Once a child with AS does have at least one social peer relationship, s/he needs to work on specific skills to further develop the friendship and to be able to participate at recess.

We need to teach children with AS a myriad of social skills, both individually and in dyads or small groups, and using both explicit and implicit instructional methods. Critical to instruction is to teach the “Big Picture”—why do we do what we do—and the details. Children with AS need to be taught to see both the forest and the trees. Otherwise, they may become “sea conch shells,” echoing the social rules, courtesies, and behaviors, but lacking a true understanding and therefore being unable to apply them effectively. Teaching children with AS social skills at their social and emotional developmental level is essential to having them climb the social awareness ladder. Children with AS have limited social referencing, joint attention, emotional reciprocity, and other theory of mind skills. Always have theory of mind development and instruction as part of the program. This area is essential to social and emotional development and relationship building.

The above topics are extremely important in helping children with AS become socially and emotionally more secure and competent. They are also long term and systemic in nature, involving other adults and therapists, parents, and the school community as a whole. They are worth striving for and engaging in as long term goals if they are not currently being done in your school.

Meanwhile, in the short term there are many concrete strategies and techniques that teachers and aides can put in place to help make recess a more enjoyable place for kids with AS. Some specific teaching methods include: previewing and reviewing techniques, direct instruction, visual supports, videotaping, behavior charts, peer buddies, and mentoring, “Circle of Friends.” There are also the powerful tools created by Carol Gray and described in her books: Social Stories, Social Cue Questionnaires, and Comic Strip Conversations.

First and foremost get out to recess and be a detective! Observe recess, gathering information about the student with AS and the other students as well.

  • What does the student with AS typically do?
  • What does s/he seem to want to do?
  • Who does s/he like to be with or try to be with?
  • Does s/he know how to play the games the other students are playing? Does s/he have the vocabulary? Know the rules?
  • What is this student’s communication like?
  • What are the kids playing?
  • What are the rules for each game?
  • Who plays with whom?
  • By answering these questions you begin to understand the playground rules and politics, and can incorporate them into your instruction. This information guides your thinking and work with the student with AS.

You can gather further information about the student’s needs by creating a Social Cue Questionnaire, and using the results to write social story. A Social Cue Questionnaire is a series of questions about a specific topic that the student with AS is having trouble with, for example: playing Tag, playing with more than one person, playing with different people, sharing a friend etc. From the student’s answers to these questions you can pinpoint what aspect of the situation the student with AS is misinterpreting, and then write the social story to alleviate the problem. Sometimes, a social story is all that is needed to facilitate play at recess. However, more often than not a multi-faceted approach is needed.

Another technique is to preview and review the games that are played at recess. Teach specific games (Four Square, Tag etc) that the student with AS is interested in learning. This teaching includes the big picture and the details: why children like to play this game, what’s the objective, what are the rules and guidelines etc. This teaching may involve a social story, watching and videotaping the game being played by others, and practicing the game in a preview and review model. In the naturally occurring game things move too fast; the child with AS doesn’t know what is relevant to attend to, and easily gets lost. Videotape other children playing the game, and have the student watch it in a 1-1 session or small group. Point out to the student relevant happenings and the social content. This will help the student with AS know what is important later when s/he is directly engaged in the game. Another technique is to teach the game with a small group of students in a quiet setting and at a slower pace, to assist the child with AS in understanding the rules, purpose and moves. This can happen during therapy sessions, before school, or in an Adapted Physical Education class. One to three classmates agree to assist in playing the game and teaching the student with AS. Videotape this practice game and then review it with the student with AS. Once the student has successfully played the game in the small group, he can then try playing the game at recess.

Watching a video of recess and the games children are playing, and analyzing it for many aspects of social interaction, gives the student with AS practice in scanning a social scene to see what is happening, noticing how social interactions happen etc. The focus of the videotaping should be individualized and based on the student’s needs.

Teaching children with AS to be observers of social skills is also a powerful exercise. During this activity an adult and a student with AS choose something/someone to observe. They may choose to watch two students picking sides for a soccer game, a group of children playing cards, students waiting in line etc. Whatever the situation, the adult becomes a “sports announcer,” calling a play by play of the social world, directing the student’s attention to the social and language content of the event. You and the student can focus on the nonverbal and verbal behavior of one particular child, or of everyone involved in the situation. This activity points out for the student with AS what is relevant about the situation in terms of social awareness. It helps the student with AS guide her/his attention and focus. Later these observations can be discussed for their relevance to the specific situation and the broader social world.

Deciding who to play with and what to play before getting to the playground can also be helpful. The student can ask a friend to play and be connected before leaving the classroom. Providing a poster or chart of possible recess choices right near the door is also a way to help the student with AS get organized and decide what s/he wants to do before going out. The chart does not bring unwanted attention to the student with AS; it may help other students, too.

If the classroom has a basket of outdoor toys, you can help the student with AS get involved by asking him or her to carry the basket out to the playground. If children are allowed to bring things from home to play with, this is another way to encourage student interaction. For instance, swapping trading cards is a great way for children with AS to become a part of things or even a leader.

Structuring recess to involve other types of activities (i.e. chalk, board games, drawing etc) that are not as “physical” can be beneficial. In this way children with different interests are included at recess. Many children prefer this type of play to the more active games of recess.

You can also create individual behavior charts to encourage students with AS to play with others at recess. The student earns 3 points by participating with others, 2 points by watching others, or 1 point by playing alone. The choice is up to the child. Make a Choice Board, where the student trades in points for desired rewards. A social connection is the best reward for participation as it is natural as opposed to setting up rewards which are artificial. However, sometimes extrinsic rewards may be needed to encourage the student to take risks and be more social.

This takes us to the issue of the school’s culture. The adults in a school are responsible for promoting civility in the building and on the playground by:

  • Teaching all children about who they are as learners—with strengths and weaknesses.
  • Teaching them to appreciate each other’s similarities and differences.
  • Teaching them to be kind to each other.
  • Creating an atmosphere of caring and respect.

A school-wide social program such as the Socially Responsive Classroom, that sets appropriate behavioral expectations, and that teaches students social skills and encourages their use, establishes a positive atmosphere that helps everyone. A positive, accepting classroom/school culture goes a long way toward fostering kind and caring relationships among all students. In such an environment, friendships develop “even” with kids who are on the margins. However, those programs that meet for 30 minutes once a week do little good unless they are reinforced on a daily basis. Students need to practice and consolidate their new social skills until they become second nature. Social skills which are embedded in every aspect of the daily life of the school have the greatest impact and the most lasting effects. Many classrooms have behavior plans that can be reinforced at recess as well. For example, class-wide “acts of kindness” are reinforced when a teacher insists that all children get to participate in a game, rather than permitting some to be excluded.

There are many tools and techniques to help children with AS at recess. I’ve only listed a few here to help guide your thinking. These techniques provide the student with AS with the knowledge and skills needed to participate at recess. However, these skills and knowledge can only be truly activated when the student with AS feels safe and supported in his or her school community. Always remember that to help students with AS it is important to “walk in their shoes”—to take their perspective. By being a good detective and a good observer you begin to walk in their shoes; ultimately this will assist you in helping the student with AS have more fun at recess.

I can’t stress enough the idea that in order for any of us to grow and change we need to feel safe and supported. The most important ingredient of all is therefore to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring in which social connection can develop and be fostered. Schools that embed social skills in daily life, and that set a tenor of peace and caring, allow all students to feel safe and cared for. This is most important for students with AS. It provides the preconditions and the context in which specific instructional techniques can most effectively help them be more successful at recess.